Elegy For a Good Man
It’s been a sad season in our household. My beloved wife lost her brother, who was also among my dearest friends, just before Christmas. Carol Shults-Perkins, the huge-hearted director of Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, whose board I chair, lost her husband shortly thereafter, and then, shortly following, Char Cutforth, longtime wife of Strafford doctor Jack Beecham, my friend of 68 years, also passed. These were all deaths by cancer, some after long sieges (my brother-in-law had been struggling heroically for 12 years), some all too short (Char was diagnosed this past August).
My brother-in-law was known simply as Chip. He served as a career police officer in East Longmeadow, Mass. Neither in that capacity nor in any other did he ever swagger; never did he make the least effort to look impressive — and yet he obviously touched countless lives, as was evident at his wake. Despite the bitter cold, which meant many had to wait in terrible conditions for their chances to file through, 600 mourners showed up at the funeral home to offer Chip and his family tribute. These included, of course, all his fellow cops, but also the full local fire department, doctors and nurses who had tended him, his auto mechanic, his barber, the guys with whom he’d played club hockey, even the man who ran the local recycling center.
Chip’s lovely and bright oldest child, daughter Jen, spoke a compelling eulogy. She referred to the innumerable little things that her father had done for her as he helped to raise her. Some would not consider them manly; to me they epitomize the most humane sort of masculinity. Jen mentioned, for one example, Chip’s keeping her in his truck one afternoon during a torrential rainstorm. As they waited almost an hour for the storm to pass, he enthusiastically played Barbie dolls with her; in winter, for further instance, when she was a toddler, as he put Jen to bed he would lie with her on his chest until the mattress had been thoroughly warmed.
Jen concluded by saying, “It turns out the little things were the big things.” Amen.
I did not know Dr. Beecham’s wife very well, but the bravery and dignity Jack brought to her memorial service in Strafford, the modesty and integrity with which he has conducted a remarkable medical career — all that put me in mind of our niece’s conclusion. I knew Carol Shults-Perkins’ husband Allen not at all, but every report on his demeanor summons similar thoughts.
After the tribute to Char in the Strafford church, and with the other two sad passings so fresh in my mind, I found myself calling up two literary passages, ones that as a young and relatively carefree man it seems I’d unwittingly stored. The first comes at the end of George Eliot’s magisterial Middlemarch, in which the novelist writes of her heroine Dorothea that: “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The other passage is from Wordsworth’s famous ode at Tintern Abbey, in which he speaks of how, in “hours of weariness,” he may, by way of memory, experience
... sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: — feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
My brother-in-law and I had many differences. His politics, say, were significantly to the right of mine. I didn’t care about such a matter. I still don’t. What matters to me — and what I think each of us, in the effort to lead “a good man’s (or woman’s) life,” might well consider — is the inutility and even the ruinousness of ego and grandiosity, as compared to the value of those little nameless acts. Whatever the circumstance, Chip could be counted on to do the next right thing. That, increasingly, seems crucial to me as I age.
I close with the poem I recited at the reception following my brother-in-law’s funeral. I don’t know whether it’s “good”; in fact, I suspect that it may not even be enlightening to anyone lacking personal knowledge of its addressee. But I hope at least it encapsulates the gist of my comments above:
What It Boils Down To
— for A.J. Barone III, RIP
It boils down to this: you will always be young and handsome
And strong in our hearts — but above all kind, concerned
For how those around you felt, and this even when
You fought a war that few can so much as imagine.
We two were different: I’ve lived my life in the mind,
And although you were scarcely less bright, you were more the doer.
And you were my hero, still are. There seem fewer and fewer
Like you in whose person ethic and deed are combined.
Thought, no matter how lofty, seems duller than lead,
Without heart to match, just as faith without works is dead.
You said, no matter how terribly you were tried,
You felt a lucky man. I remember you said
As well — though we all must meet with pain and dread —
The world’s best things are happening every day.
You made that clear by the way you smiled on your wife,
On your children, and with pure joy on your two grandchildren.
That’s one example. If there’s some grand kingdom called heaven,
As I believe there may be, it will echo life
In what you showed to be its most loving hours.
And those of us who loved you — we are scores and scores —
Will take those moments you cherished and make them ours.
What it boils down to, though I say as much in tears,
Is that your valor and goodness will light our years.
Sydney Lea is a resident of Newbury. He is Vermont’s Poet Laureate.